Free associations about travel and books

 ... Great Books and Following the trace of Lewis and Clark

by Russell Berg

During the last eighteen months, I have been exposed to a very informative course in the societal evolution of mankind. This course involved reading books suggested by Great Books and UUBooks and my recent trip along the Lewis and Clark exploration route.

The books were:

Chinua Achebe's novel, "Things Fall Apart," a story about the impact of European expansion upon a community that had reached the chiefdom level of development. Fortunately, most of the novel was concerned with the daily lives of the villagers, and brought life to the relationships within and among families. It also touches on the relationships between villages. It does this in the intriguing format of the novel.

Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs and Steel" is a compendium of what is known about the development of mankind from 10,000 BC to today. This well-written book addresses the question, "Why did high technology develop in the particular regions where it developed and not in other places?" Diamond starts with the assumption that people around the world are equally intelligent and creative. In fact, Diamond opines that survival in the jungle requires more brains than staying alive in a state society. Instead of differences in people, it is the combination of many factors acting together that made the Fertile Crescent the location where the inception of technology occurred. Availability of domesticable animals and plants was the major factor. The Crescent is in the middle of a weather zone of only moderate weather variation which extends from France to China so that trade and travel and the exchange of ideas were facilitated. The length of North and South America is approximately the same as Eurasia. However, in the Americas, the climate is arctic on both ends with tropics in the middle. And the llama and the wolf are the only domesticable indigenous American animals. When territorial expansion occurred, those with better technology prevailed, unless they were overcome with germs, as happened to Europeans in Central Africa and Panama.

Steven Ambrose, "Undaunted Courage". While the central theme of this book is the Lewis and Clark expedition, it contains a great deal of information on Indian and European life of 1800. Daily life in 1800 was so different from ours that it is hard to believe that only 200 years of technology has made the difference.

Dorothy and I traveled the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Charles, MO to Astoria, OR. As much as modern roads would allow, we went up the Missouri River and down the Columbia. In addition to travel on roads, boat trips at the Gates of the Mountains and Hell Canyon of the Snake River went up canyons with walls that rise 1,000 feet on both sides. One spectacular view was mountain goats on the upper edge, illuminated by the setting sun, lying in a ring-like circle of rock watching us go by. Other animals seen on these trips were deer, mountain sheep, blue herons, and kingfishers. Driving down the Columbia Gorge was another spectacular ride.

We went to Lemhi Pass where Lewis saw mountain after mountain and discovered that the Rocky Mountain crossing would not be the one day affair he had anticipated. Riding west along the western prairies, the Rockies suddenly rise and seem everywhere.

The Corps of Discovery journals complained about mosquitoes consistently. As we went along I tried to visualize the rigors of the Lewis and Clark trip. There are parks at many of the river confluences and other sites that figured in the Lewis and Clark trip. At these places I tried to imagine towing the boats, making portages around falls and rapids, writing journals after a day in the field, hunting and preparing food, making clothes and everything else that went on to stay alive and conduct the expedition. To me, a city boy, it seemed beyond human capability. At Fort Mandan a lunch was served as part of the visit. Mosquitoes were everywhere, and I ate a few of Lewis and Clark's mosquito descendants. Never mind all the other tribulations, to throw in hordes of mosquitoes to test the men and woman of the expedition sounds like something out of the Book of Job. This was our only experience where the imagination did not have to be stretched to get back to the trials of the expedition. Fortunately at the other locations, crop dusters had preceded us.

This trip was, in effect, a demonstration or laboratory course in the material I had been reading. Most of the towns along the route have put together many fine museums (now called "interpretive centers") filled with exhibits pertinent to the Lewis and Clark expedition, westward emigration and Indian life and customs. I had heard of the emigrants using push carts to carry their goods and food west. I had visualized a cart the size of a child's red wagon. One of the rangers allowed me to get into an archive shed to see a replica of one of the emigrant carts. It was the size of the Washington Street, Boston vendor carts and must have weighed 100 pounds before any cargo was added. In addition, the ranger told me the iron wheel rims fell off when the wooden wheels shrank in the dryness and heat. Makes you wonder that the West was ever won.

On the prairies, bison, or more properly buffalo, were abundant, and a major Indian and Lewis and Clark food and leather resource. One of the town museums had acquired the Smithsonian buffalo display. I remember a picture of the display being on a stamp some years ago. The display is about twenty feet in diameter and five buffalo of different ages and gender stand in what looks like very natural positions. Buffalo Run Museum is located near the bottom of the escarpment of a butte where many buffalo bones were found. It is believed that Indians led and induced buffalo herds to stampede over the cliff, where waiting tribe members dispatched the injured buffalo and skinned and butchered them. A full grown bull buffalo is a mean looking animal with nine inch horns. I estimate that they are twice as heavy as a full grown steer. When we had our buffalo experience near Medora, I was afraid to get out of the car to get my camera from the trailer, never mind trying to lead a herd over a cliff. Most tourists see the wild animals in the parks at some distance. Dorothy and I had the unusual opportunity to see two herds very close, like surrounding us. I expect wild animals to be graceful (maybe I have seen too many Disney movies), so I was surprised at how ungainly running buffalo are. Running deer seem happy like they appear on Christmas cards.

Talking about dryness and heat, we were in Montana before the big fires started, when the heat and dryness were preparing the woods for the fires. Maybe the Lewis and Clark personnel were lucky they were pulling the boats in the river. I was very debilitated and drank a gallon of water a day plus Gatorade. Summer in the middle of the continent is no place for the elderly, especially one who always lived less than ten miles from the ocean. Air conditioning in the trailer helped, but it is still very dry.

In anticipation of the bicentennial in 2003 and 2006, the U.S. Forestry Service is predicting 2,500,000 visitors to Lewis and Clark sites and routes. Expect a lot of Lewis and Clark travel articles in newspapers and magazines in the next few years.

And now a note of my own. As each new technology becomes a part of our lives, we very soon readjust our lives so that it becomes very difficult to get along without it. Yet aside from the railroad and the steamship, most of our technology was developed in our century. About Lewis and Clark's time, 1803, the steam engine was beginning to appear. Prior to that, man and animal power was it. Nothing much had changed since the time of the Greeks and Romans. Sustained five miles an hour was the exception. Based on the stunning chrysalis of physics and chemistry since Newton in the 1600's, our technology has screamed ahead. Our transportation, medicine and food production and distribution successes are beyond the wildest dreams of an 1800's citizen. We drink water from any available faucet with the expectation of it being potable, unless marked otherwise. We complain when our doctors can't explain every nuance of an ailment. There are Wal-Marts and Safeways everywhere. My 11,000 mile trip in fifteen weeks is a great illustration, towing our living quarters around at 60 miles an hour and being the slowest driver on the road. We do all this while providing a very high percentage of our people with a life style of safety, luxury, and convenience never before achieved. And our technology benefits everybody, not just an elite. It is my greatest hope that we will find ways to share our technology with the rest of the world and that we will find ways to do this peaceably by trade and exchange instead of by war.

My next intellectual quest is finding why the unfolding of science occurred in Europe. While our Aristotelian heritage has been cited as the reason, the Persian and Chinese also were familiar with his ideas, and they did not generate a Newton and his successors. I wonder why?

In the course of our trip, the field trips and interpretive centers illustrated many of the ideas expressed in the cited books. The Indian tribes lived in the third level, the chieftain level of societies. Lewis and Clark were from the state level of organized societies, with legislatures, expressed laws, a written language, steel tools, etc. Many exhibits illustrated Diamond's thesis that the development of people and societies are limited by the available natural resources, not by an inherent lack of brains. The Indians were very inventive and clever in the use of what they had. Until science and technology blossomed in 1850 to 1900, the Europeans weren't too far ahead of any other society in transportation, medicine, sanitation and food distribution. This fact was illustrated many times over in the interpretive centers.

November 3, 2000

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